In D.C., Netanyahu Tries To Be Seen As Peacemaker

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The ice seemed to thaw somewhat in the recently frosty relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when the two heads of state met earlier this week. But despite the warmer tone, the two are still at loggerheads over some major issues. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk speaks with host Scott Simon about the options that lie ahead for the two leaders as they move forward.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama and Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, met at the White House this week, and they seemed to make a point of conspicuously getting along together, tamping down any talk of a breach between the two countries.

President BARACK OBAMA: We are going to continually work with the prime minister and the entire Israeli government, as well as the Israeli people, so that we can achieve what I think has to be everybody's goal, which is that people feel secure.

SIMON: President Obama speaking this week at the White House. Martin Indyk, who served two tours as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton and is now the vice president and director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, joins us. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Brookings Institution): Pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And what did you notice in the public pronouncements that came out of the meeting or even the smiles and body language?

Mr. INDYK: Well, from the clip that you played, what's interesting is the way the president emphasized that he wanted to work with the prime minister, the government and the people of Israel. I think for the last 18 months we've had a bit of a tussle between the president and the prime minister, both kind of working against each other rather than working with each other.

And I think that what the president is signaling is that they've both come to recognize that their individual purposes - the president's desire to try to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians and establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the prime minister's concern to get the president fully onboard his efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons - that on those two key objectives, which they share in common, they need to work together.

The reference to the Israeli public was underscored by the way in which the president then went out after the meeting and did a number of interviews culminating with a television interview with Israel's main television station. This is the first time he's addressed the Israeli public in 18 months. It's been a terrible omission. He's basically lost the Israeli public, who would otherwise be supportive of him if only he'd tell them what he was trying to do. And finally he's doing that, and I think that's long overdue and a positive development.

SIMON: Did we also see in this trip by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who noted that he's been here a lot, did we see a different side of him, if not an altogether different prime minister?

Mr. INDYK: Indeed. He underscored that he's ready to take risks for peace, which was exactly Yitzhak Rabin's formula back in the early '90s when he decided to make peace. So, yes, I think he strove to take on that mantle of peacemaker. He didn't really make much of Iran, even though Iran is much more on his mind. And I think that this is a recognition on his part that there's a mood shift in Israel - not that noticeable from here but I've just been in Israel and I felt it very strongly, that the public was really shocked at the way in which the whole world seemed to turn against it over the flotilla crisis.

And they really felt in a corner and wondering what lay ahead in their future with this effort to delegitimize Israel and delegitimize its use of force as well. And I think there's a public mood of wanting their leadership to take an initiative, to try to use politics and not just force. And I think the prime minister is responding to that.

SIMON: You have written that despite what I guess has often been described as a chill over the past 18 months, this is the most conducive environment for peace negotiations in a decade.

Mr. INDYK: Yes. I hope I don't sound like Pollyanna here, but taking the long view - and I've lived through it very closely - particularly the outbreak of the intifada was when I was ambassador in Israel back in October 2000 - and see over the 10 years, almost 10 years, that, you know, the most horrendous violence, terrorism and killing of innocents on both sides, that on both sides now the violence has come way down, almost nonexistent.

The Palestinian Authority is policing the territory under its control. Hamas, for its own reasons, in Gaza is policing its territory and preventing rocket attacks on Israel. The Palestinians, I think, are tired of war and the Israelis understand that they need to find a way out of their own existential dilemmas.

And this creates an environment in which the Israelis have stopped settlement activities, stopped provocative activity in Jerusalem, the Palestinian president and prime minister are declaring day-in and day-out that they want to make peace. They're trying to act as responsible partners.

So, you have a circumstance which you haven't had for 10 years in which it's just possible that the combination of war weariness and a sense that the alternatives are far worse might just create circumstances in which the leaders, if they are statesmen - and that remains to be tested - could actually do a deal.

SIMON: And what's the U.S. role in that?

Mr. INDYK: We are the indispensible partner. They can't get to an agreement without us. But they are the ones that have to make the ultimate decisions. I'm fond of quoting Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, who says that history is a horse that gallops past your window. And the true act of a statesman is to jump from the window onto that galloping horse.

Well, what the president of the United States can do with his aides is get that horse galloping past the window. But ultimately it comes down to whether Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen are prepared to do a difficult thing, which is jump from the window onto that galloping horse.

SIMON: Martin Indyk, who served two tours as U.S. ambassador to Israel, now at the Brookings Institution, thanks so much.

Mr. INDYK: Thank you, Scott.

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